Gender relations during COVID-19: A moment for Rwanda to step into its global leadership

While days may stretch long for most of us now, the days are unrelenting for those facing violence. I think of the children who got small sips of normalcy and safety at school, but who are at home now, being beaten and battered or forced to watch beatings and batterings. The horror of the virus is not simply its own contagion but the virulence of the circumstances it creates.” – Rafia Zakaria, author of “The Upstairs Wife: An Intimate History of Pakistan” in his article of April 2nd titled “Domestic Violence and Coronavirus: Hell Behind Closed Doors”.

Rwanda in the COVID-19 times

 

Slightly over one month after the first identified case on March 14, Rwanda’s coronavirus cases or COVID-19 stands at 136. However, there is hope to overcome this situation, given the very strong and timely measures taken by the Government of Rwanda to contain the pandemic.

 

The good news is that there have been zero deaths so far and the latest is that 54 patients who have fully recovered from COVID-19 have even been discharged from the treatment facilities.

 

While the pandemic continues to negatively impact the world in many ways, it also shines a light on the extent to which countries have differed in their approaches to managing such a complex situation.

Once again, Rwanda demonstrated its strong leadership, right from the beginning. Soon after the identification of the first case of COVID-19, a two-week countrywide lockdown was announced (later extended by another two weeks), international flights were suspended, border-crossings were restricted, inter-district movements were restricted, schools and places of worship were closed, and unnecessary movements were prohibited, with people required to stay home and work from home (if possible).

The country’s leadership quickly recognized the difficulty posed by these containment measures, particularly for people with limited resources who work to meet their family’s basic needs on a day-to-day basis.

The Government of Rwanda took the commendable steps to provide food and other provisions to fill basic needs for the most vulnerable citizens, an initiative that was quickly embraced by other individuals and the private sector.

The success of the response so far has been made possible by strong leadership, existing well-designed social and political frameworks and policies related to health, governance, social protection.

Yet, so far, not much has been said or written about the gender dimensions of the COVID-19 response thus far in Rwanda – a country recognized globally for its commitment to gender equality.

There is limited – but growing data on this issue globally. It’s imperative to recognize that the disease outbreak and its response affect women, girls, men and boys differently, which requires us to look at the pandemic through a gender lens: to explore how our gender will influence the impact COVID-19 will have on our own lives, the lives of our families, and of our communities.

Confinement can lead to increased risk of violence for women and children

The UN has stated that the pandemic is leading to a global surge in violence against women, with confinement measures leaving women with little opportunities to escape abusive partners.

Prior to the pandemic, 31% of ever-married women in Rwanda reported that they have ever experienced any physical violence from their current or most recent husband or partner, according to a 2019 report by INSR, a figure which might be exacerbated by the current situation.

Concerning children, the Violence against Children and Youth Survey (VACYS) conducted in 2015-2016 showed that 5 in 10 girls and 6 in 10 boys experience at least one form of violence – sexual, physical or emotional – before age 18 and that they are most often abused by those they know: parents, relatives, neighbours, teachers, or friends.

According to the global rapid gender analysis on COVID-19 report released by CARE International mid-March, in humanitarian crises, compounding factors, such as increased anxiety and stress levels and economic hardships, can lead to increased rates of gender-based violence.

Mandatory lockdowns, quarantine, and self-isolation are important public health measures that must be taken; however, they can also have harmful effects on those in already violent situations.

Although some women and men might be enjoying the “stay home” measure, spending quality time with their families, in other households, where abusive behaviors are prevalent, such measure may spell hell.

An abuser can also use this situation as a weapon to further use violence against their victim, by isolating them from family, friends, and social networks, as well as from support services.

As shown by some studies, poverty is another compounding factor that might lead to violence.

Conflict evolving from economic stress is a trigger for abusive behaviors: bored and isolated men are more likely to vent their frustrations on the most proximate target, which are often their female partners.

A considerable proportion of Rwandans remains poor despite the progress made in Rwanda to reduce poverty. According to the INSR gender report of 2019 17.8% of female-headed households and 15% male-headed households are in extreme poverty.

COVID-19 can also exacerbate inequalities related to care work

Globally, women carry out on average, more than 3.3 times the daily care work that men do.

According to the EICV 4 gender report women spend 53 hours per week on unpaid work and paid work combined; men only 43 hours; women do more unpaid care work than men do.

Often, we assume that this is because men do more paid work, but when we combined the two, we see that women do more total work per day than men do.

This disparity is due to existing gender norms that relegate the care of children, the sick, elderly, and the home to women who are continuing to shoulder the majority of the burden of household chores, having to take care of sick family members and children who are at home due to school closures.

It’s therefore critical to pay attention to those women, and how to support them.

A wakeup call for decision-makers

It’s important to recognize that pre-existing gender inequalities often worsen during a crisis, and understanding the ways in which disease outbreaks affect women, girls, men, and boys in specific ways is fundamental to understanding the impacts of a health emergency, in order to create effective, responsive, and equitable policies, preparedness plans, and responses.

A more nuanced response is needed right now: one that takes women’s specific situations into consideration. 

As much attention is currently focused on containing the virus, there is a risk that its impact on women – particularly when it comes to gender-based violence and unpaid care work – is likely to be overlooked.

Rwanda has done so much to promote gender equality, prevent and respond to gender-based previously, including establishing One Stop Centers in each district hospital that operate as 24/7 free-of-charge referral centers, where victims of gender-based violence and child abuse can find holistic services ranging from medical care to psychosocial and legal support, including police investigation and forensic evidence collection.

During the current situation, the abuser can make it difficult or impossible for their partner to access those services.

We must adapt the way services normally operate to the current situation in order to make it easy for those experiencing violence – women and men – to access those services on time whenever they would need them. etc.

In this time of COVID-19, Rwanda needs to develop tailored messages and mechanisms to raise awareness for families and couples, and support them to be safe, healthy and happy in the confinement of their homes.

The appropriate institutions should ensure that families live without any threat of or actual violence in these difficult and challenging times when the entire world is threatened by a virus for which there is no cure or vaccine as yet.

It is necessary to raise awareness of existing services, specifically hotlines; to consider the possibility of creating temporary shelters for women (particularly if police are not able to intervene or enforce restraining orders); and highlight what individuals can do, like how to reach out to support friends and family in a safe way.

In conclusion, gender inequities may exacerbate the impact of outbreaks, and responses that do not incorporate a gender analysis could also exacerbate inequities, long after.

Rwanda is to be congratulated for its strong political commitment to gender equality and women’s empowerment, which have resulted in significant positive strides.

The role of boys and men in achieving gender equality has been highlighted in the UN Women-led HeforShe Campaign and the President of Rwanda, H.E. Paul Kagame, is one of the 10 Heads of State who are Global Impact Champions for this movement and is well-positioned to support his commitment by promoting men’s engagement, particularly around taking on unpaid care work, and preventing gender-based violence in these times; it also reminds us also the longer-term importance of engaging boys early in doing hands-on care at home, exposing boys to care professions, and embracing a culture of care.

The COVID-19 pandemic is an opportunity for Rwanda to continue to show global leadership on gender equality – by ensuring that its COVID-19 response is gender-informed and designed to mitigate the exacerbation of gender inequalities and address the risks of increased gender-based, child abuse, and the unequal distribution of care work.

The writer is a Rwandan gender expert who currently works as a senior program officer with Promundo US, a global leader in advancing gender equality and preventing violence by engaging men and boys in partnership with women, girls, and individuals of all gender identities.

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